Touring Higher Ground St. Paul

On Monday, April 8, a group from Madison drove up to St. Paul to visit Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground shelterwhich opened in January 2017. Our group consisted of city and county staff as well as representatives from service providers and other interested parties like myself. It was an opportunity to visit a facility that had been designed for the purpose of providing overnight emergency shelter as we dream of a new shelter in Madison.

The scale of the project is breathtaking. The shelter itself provides 172 beds for men, sixty for women. In addition, on the second floor there are 48 pay-to-stay beds and ten medical respite beds. The upper floors provide193 additional SRO (single-room occupancy) beds. Opposite the shelter, another facility that will house daytime services as well as additional housing is under construction with completion scheduled for fall 2019. Overall the campus is the result of a public-private partnership and a successful $100 million capital campaign.

As we approached the shelter, we were greeted by homeless people who were hanging out on the broad plaza in front of the building. One shared a little bit about his life, another gathered us and offered a prayer. Inside, our formal greeting took place in the spacious intake area which is used for both the men’s and women’s sections of the shelter. We were given a brief history of the efforts to provide emergency shelter and then taken on a tour of part of the facility.

The stark difference between the Drop-In Men’s Shelter in Madison and Higher Ground was obvious at first glance. A spacious lobby accommodates guests at intake unlike the cramped hallway where intake occurs at Grace, requiring that men wait outside during cold and inclement weather. Inside the shelter is ample room for guests to sit. There are mats available for overflow. The bunks are efficiently and thoughtfully designed, offering electric outlets, USB ports, and storage lockers. Guests can reserve their bunk for the next night which gives them the opportunity to leave their belongings in the small lockable storage locker. The reservation policy means that there is relatively little turnover because the shelter operates at capacity year-round.

Preston Patterson, manager of the shelter at Grace, in the Higher Ground lobby

A shot of the men’s shelter area

The outdoor smoking area

a bunk showing storage locker and bedding

Our tour guides

The facility was light and airy. One of the features is an outdoor smoking area that is always accessible from the shelter. Benches and tables allow smoking guests to sit comfortably and engage in conversation.

The pay-to-stay area offers more seclusion and more storage space than the first-floor shelter. Guests pay a fee for each night, payable in advance. The money is held in escrow and as it accumulates up to $500 can be used toward permanent housing (first-month’s rent or security deposit).

a peek into the pay-to-stay area. The bunks are the same as below but there’s more storage and privacy

Because Higher Ground is not the only emergency shelter in St. Paul and there are facilities in nearby Minneapolis as well, policies and procedures can be both stricter as regards behavior and more flexible around limits on stay and the like. Some of them might not work in Madison.

One of the most difficult issues facing any discussion of building a new shelter in Madison is location. There is widespread consensus among government, service providers, and homeless advocates that any homeless shelter needs to be located downtown near transportation and other services. Higher Ground was built on property that was already owned by Catholic Charities. Initial attempts to locate it elsewhere faltered on neighborhood opposition.

I came away from the tour deeply impressed by facility’s design, by its operation, and by the commitment of the staff who led the tour. St. Paul can be proud of the facility that offers shelter and services to people experiencing homelessness, ensuring their dignity and offering them opportunities to move temporary to permanent housing as they seek to build lives of meaning and contribute to the greater good of the community.

It also reaffirmed my commitment to working with others in our city and county to create a purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our community and dedicated to helping those who seek shelter there to find permanent housing and to lead productive, meaningful lives.

Homelessness and Political Partisanship

I had one of those interesting experiences today that was both hopeful and clearly demonstrated the challenges we face as a society, nation, and state in dealing with difficult issues. Soon after arriving at the office, my Senior Warden who was waiting for a vendor, asked me what I had planned. Today was supposed to be devoted to finalizing plans for Lent and Confirmation classes and after dealing with several administrative matters, I set to focus on that work. But then I learned that a press conference was scheduled for the morning in the Men’s Drop-In Shelter in our basement. While we are landlords and not operators of the shelter, publicity, whether good or bad, reflects directly on Grace Church, so it’s my policy to be present when press and elected officials come to the shelter.

There were conflicting reports on who was going to be at the press conference but eventually the parties in question arrived—a group of Republican legislators who had been involved in the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, established by the previous Governor and chaired by the former Lieutenant Governor. The legislators were using the press conference to announce the introduction of a number of bills addressing homelessness.

I’ve attended any number of press conferences called by social service, agencies, religious organizations, or advocacy groups and in my experience, often the press conference is held with no press in attendance. This time, because of the involvement of legislators, there were representatives from print and TV media. I had a chance to meet several of the legislators before the beginning of the event and shared with them some about the shelter. The conversations were cordial and the legislators were genuinely interested in learning more about the shelter and about homelessness in Madison. Karla Tennes, Executive Director of Porchlight, Inc. was in attendance and spoke at the press conference, and Shelter Manager Preston Patterson also was present.

When the cameras came on, and after the prepared remarks, the tone of the room and the event quickly shifted. There may have been a question about the content of the bills, but immediately, reporters began to highlight the partisan divisions, first by pointing out that no Democratic legislators were present, and then by changing the subject entirely to hot-button issues. The reporters got their soundbites and the press conference ended.


After all but one of the reporters had left, we continued our conversation. The Shelter manager described in detail shelter operations, policies and procedures, and both he and Porchlight Executive Director Karla Tennes talked about the involvement of volunteers in helping to provide 2 meals every day to shelter guests. Our conversation continued for more than twenty minutes. Legislators learned a great deal about what takes place only a few yards away from the State Capitol.


I am not one to bash the press—they are crucial to the survival of democracy and to the creation of a civil society, but I was struck by the immediate shift in tone and topic when they began to engage with the elected officials. The issue at hand, homelessness, didn’t really seem to interest them. Instead, the story they wanted to tell was the story of political conflict and political partisanship, and if they had to attend a press conference in a homeless shelter to get that story, so be it.


In my conversations with legislators and staff, we talked about issues like homelessness and opioid addiction that should matter to everyone and around which we need to come together across our divisions to find solutions. From what I could tell, there is genuine interest in such bipartisan efforts. That Governor Evers has announced he will chair the Interagency Council on Homelessness seems to be a move in the right direction.


I’ve been thinking a great deal about how we might create opportunities for conversations across the deep divisions in our state and society. Today made me both more hopeful about that possibility and more aware of the importance of such efforts in Madison and across the state.


Here’s how Madison.comis reporting the story.

Update on response to severe weather (updated!): Porchlight’s plans for the weekend

I received word from Preston Patterson, manager of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter that they will continue to extend hours during this coldsnap. The predicted low for Sunday, January 26 is -12.

Preston writes:

Wednesday 1/22/14

  • All bans to remain lifted until Wednesday morning 1/29
  • Van service to overflow shelters from main shelter

Thursday 1/23

  • Van service  from overflow shelters, back to main shelter
  • Main shelter will close at 9am
  • Evening van service to overflow shelters

Friday 1/24

  • Resume normal shelter operations – no van service and normal closing time

Saturday 1/25

  • Normal shelter operations – no van service and normal closing time

Sunday 1/26

  • Main shelter to remain open until 1pm
  • Van service yet to be determined

Monday 1/27

  • Van service from overflow shelters, back to main shelter
  • Main shelter will close at 9am
  • Evening van service to overflow shelters

Tuesday 1/28

  • Van service from overflow shelters, back to main shelter
  • Main shelter will close at 9am
  • Evening van service to overflow shelters

I’m happy to share this information and I’m happy that they are making decisions now about the weekend. One of the problems is getting the word out, so please share widely.

I learned how important getting this information out in a variety of ways is. On Monday, I spoke with a man who had been treated for frostbite the previous night. Banned from the shelter, he didn’t know that such bans were temporarily lifted, so he didn’t seek shelter there.

Quick update on the Porchlight fire

We’re still working to put everything in place; but it looks like things are coming together. According to last reports, four women were supposed to spend last night at St. Francis House; eight more will move in today.

For info on how to donate to help these women who lost everything in the fire, go to

Thanks again to Steve Silverberg and LZ Ventures, Jim Stopple of Madison Property Management, and St. Francis Administrator Beth Wroblewski who have been working hard to make this happen

Update on the Porchlight fire and the response from St. Francis House

Here’s today’s article from the Wisconsin State Journal.

Here’s the letter my colleague Andy Jones wrote to Madison’s Common Council yesterday.

In fact, it looks like we will be welcoming the Porchlight residents tomorrow. Porchlight, Madison Property Management, and our staff scrambled today to get the space ready and deal with security issues. The WSJ has info on how to donate money and items to those in need.

Whew! Another day in the life of a (well, two) priests

I woke up this morning looking forward to a leisure-filled day. I don’t have to prepare a sermon for tomorrow so I thought I might work on a couple of projects around the house, do some reading, and maybe watch some football or a movie.

Then I read about the fire at Porchlight’s facility on Brooks St. last night. I thought about calling Steve Schooler to see if there was anything I could do, but I figured he would be inundated with phone calls of all sorts and having to deal with the crisis. I thought of the woman who I had just written a check for downpayment for an apartment in one of Porchlight’s facilities, and wondered if she was affected. I thought about St. Francis House, the immediate neighbor to the north of the Brooks St. building and whether we could do anything. Then my attention turned elsewhere.

Around 11:00, I got a call from my colleague, Andy Jones. He had just received a call from Steve Silverberg of LZ Ventures who were scheduled to take over St. Francis House for the redevelopment project that I’ve mentioned before on this blog. They volunteered to delay the handover so that Porchlight could use St. Francis House to house residents displaced by the fire. Bishop Miller approved the offer, and the board was polled via email.

Meanwhile, I was deputized to contact Porchlight because of my working relationship with them. I phoned Steve Schooler and drove over to St. Francis to show them the building. We discussed logistics and what not. They have found space for six of the residents in Porchlight facilities, but ten were still homeless. All sixteen have lost all of their possessions. We’ve been working on vacating St. Francis House for the redevelopment and the move, so much of the lower level of the building is in a mess, to put it mildly. I also made a call to the pastor of Luther Memorial Church, another neighbor of ours, to let us know what we had in mind.

I went home, began planning those projects, and drove off to Home Depot to buy some things I needed. In the parking lot, I got another call from Andy, letting me know that Madison Property Management has volunteered to help in any way with getting the space ready for occupancy, including staff to clean, and furniture.

Now that’s ministry. I don’t get those projects done today, however.

Red tape in the way of a day shelter in Madison

I’ve been blogging about the impact of the library and Capitol closures on the homeless in Madison (previous entries here, here, here, and here). We’ve been working on solutions. One of the most promising was to use a vacant car dealership, now owned by the city, as a temporary space through March. Pat Schneider reports on this development, and on the red tape the city has thrown up around it. She’s been doing a great job keeping on this story.

As Schneider observes:

Winter is bearing down, and I’ve got to wonder what sense requiring a landscaping plan makes for a property in Wisconsin that will be used November through March. Not much grows here then. Should planning for a temporary use like this really require restriping the parking lot? A public hearing makes sense, but is there a way to expedite the process to accommodate some of the city’s most vulnerable residents?


Hmm, indeed!
One piece of good news. At least Savory Sunday has been given a permit to serve lunch in the Capitol on Sunday afternoons.

Update on homelessness in Madison

Pat Schneider of the Capital Times continues to pursue this story. As I’ve mentioned before, with the imminent closure of the Central Library for renovations and continuing closure of the Capitol basement, there is great concern about where homeless people will go during the day this winter.

Schneider interviewed Steve Schooler, Executive Director of Porchlight, which runs the Drop-in Shelter housed at Grace and other downtown churches. In initial meetings with other service providers, churches, and the downtown business community, stop-gap measures were identified, but as Schneider and Schooler point out, there are large gaps in potential coverage, especially on the weekends. Schneider’s most recent article is here.  For a depressing perspective on attitudes toward homeless people, read the comments thread.

I’ve previously discussed this issue here and here.

Shelter Renovations

Today, Grace and Porchlight invited the community to a “Transformation Celebration” at the Men’s Drop-In Shelter.

Here’s an article from the Capital Times on the renovation

Following are the remarks I made at the event:

On behalf of Grace Episcopal Church, Porchlight, Epic Software Systems, the contractors, and especially all of the volunteers who have helped with the Men’s Drop-In Shelter over the years, I would like to thank you for coming. It was some twenty-five years ago that Grace first opened its doors to a shelter. That decision was for a one-year trial in response to a growing need in the city of Madison and Dane County. No one involved in making that decision then could have imagined that we would be standing here today.

Over the years, thousands of men have sought shelter here, thousands of people have volunteered with meals and in other ways. Grace has provided space; Porchlight and its predecessors have been involved in the day-to-day operations of the shelter; and the County, City, and State governments have provided funds, both for ongoing operations and for major renovations.

There are many people to thank today; and many of us will thank them. Porchlight, the people and vestry of Grace Church, the contractors and other workers, but especially Epic Software Systems. There is someone else who deserves our gratitude, however. Last February, Joe Tarr wrote an article in Isthmus entitled “Bleak House: Grace Episcopal’s Homeless Shelter.” In it, he raised concerns about conditions in the shelter. It aroused anger at Grace, at Porchlight and among the many volunteers who support the efforts here. He got an earful from me. The press is much maligned, but at its best it can rouse the slumbering consciences of a community or a nation. Joe’s article did that. Thank you.

It was a few days after the appearance of that article that I received a phone call from Bern Tan, of Epic. He said they wanted to help. I immediately assumed that they wanted to volunteer in some way. But no, Bern replied that they wanted to design and fund renovations. I was stunned. The process has been long and involved many groups of people, but we at Grace are absolutely thrilled at the results. We know the guests of the shelter are as well. Words cannot express the depth of our gratitude to Bern Tan and Todd Sloan of Epic who have overseen this project from start to finish; to Epic who made this possible and to all of you who continue to support our efforts to provide shelter to those who need it.

We at Grace responded to a need twenty-five years ago. It was controversial then. It remains controversial. But our mission is the same now as it was then, to follow the command of Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves and to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. Thank you to all who participate in these efforts.


The Spirit blows where it wills

In February, The Isthmus published an article by Joe Tarr about the Men’s Drop-In Shelter at Grace Church. It was titled “Bleak House” and it aroused considerable anger among supporters of Porchlight and the shelter. It also raised issues about conditions in the shelter. There were already conversations taking place among churches and social service agencies about homelessness in Madison but the article galvanized interest. For example, we have probably had a half-dozen meetings at Grace about the shelter, homelessness, and what our role as a parish is.

Many people lashed out at The Isthmus. Complaints centered around the author’s unfairness and narrow perspective. Looking back, it’s clear to me that the wagons were circled in protection of Porchlight’s work.

The week after the article appeared, I received a call from someone at Epic Systems. They had read the article and wanted to help. I put them in touch with Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight. A few weeks later, a group of people from Epic toured the shelter at Grace, as well as other Porchlight facilities. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a meeting with Porchlight management and Epic to go over their proposal. As The Isthmus reported this week, Epic is proposing to fund and oversee major renovations to the space at Grace.

Often, when things we love, have deep commitment to, and have worked hard for, come under criticism, our tendency is to react viscerally. We want to protect what we love and work for. But almost every project, every institution, every agency, can be improved. Criticism is not just destructive; it can open up new possibilities. Had Joe Tarr not written that article, Epic would not have become involved.

Thanks to him, to Epic, and to everyone who works so hard to help make the shelter a place of refuge for homeless men.

We never know what might emerge from things that on the surface seem negative. As Jesus said in John 3: “The [Spirit] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”